Ancient sport of kabaddi gets a modern twist
NEW DELHI (AP) For centuries, shirtless and shoeless young warriors gathered and grappled on patches of muddy ground near the foot of the Himalayas, practicing the ancient contact sport of Kabaddi.
For the most part it was unchanged, and uncomplicated. Like other popular sports in India, though, the modern transformation has been rapid, driven by commercial opportunities and with the intention of going global.
Now there's two professional leagues - one in India and another which recently kicked off in London.
Backers of the pro leagues are marketing slick new versions of kabaddi that they hope will compete with the mushrooming franchise-based sports leagues in India - particularly cricket, the runaway success story of them all.
So far, they're following the formula. Bollywood film stars have been roped in as owners or promoters, elaborate marketing plans have been rolled out and live broadcasting deals done.
''We're only trying to capitalize on the popularity of the sport among South Asians and expatriates,'' World Kabaddi League chief executive Raman Raheja explains. ''We got to know of the potential of this game during the organization of World Cups in Punjab over the past few years featuring teams from around the world.''
Raheja says it was also the success of smaller leagues across the world that inspired his group to take the tournament to abroad.
''There are some 200 kabaddi clubs ... and only half of them are in India,'' he said. ''They're all surviving on ticket sales - without government support or sponsorship. That got us thinking and we decided to integrate the fragmented world of kabaddi.''
The race to franchise-based competitions was sparked by the instant success of the seemingly made-for-television Twenty20 cricket in India, when competing leagues battled for billions in potential revenue.
The now defunct Indian Cricket League tried vainly to stay a step ahead of the Indian Premier League, which was backed by the Board of Control for Cricket in India, but lacked recognition from the sport's governing bodies.
There's no all-embracing world governing body for the physical, tag-like game of Kabaddi, and the World Kabaddi League and Pro Kabaddi League have slightly different formats.
The seven-a-side version that is popular in south Asia and has been a regular medal sport in the Asian Games since 1990. One team sends a raider into the rival half of the field to gain points by tackling, wrestling, grabbing or tagging opponents while chanting `kabaddi' in a single breath. In the meantime, he tries to touch opposing players and then return to his own half to earn points. If he makes it back, the players he touched are out of the game.
Teams take turns to send raiders, with the aim of the defending team to either evade the raider or tackle him in such a way that he can't return to his side before running out of breath.
It became popular, particularly in northwestern India, because it requires little more than a square piece of land about half the size of a basketball court for matches, and can be played indoors or out, on the beach, on grass, dirt or mud.
But the newer versions are played on synthetic mats and chants of kabaddi have been replaced by a 30-second time limit for each raid. The players also wear shirts - providing space for sponsors' logos, naturally - while electronic scoreboards lend a contemporary look to venues.
While the Pro Kabaddi League is affiliated with the International Kabaddi Federation and follows the format used at the Asian Games, the World Kabaddi League allows only one person per team to wrestle with the raider.
The World Kabaddi League, which started Aug. 10 in London, will be played in 14 cities across three continents and five countries over five months.
Teams such as the California Eagles, Punjab Thunder, Lahore Lions, Royal Kings USA, United Singhs and Vancouver Lions are among eight teams competing for the top prize of $570,000. The players' salaries range from $10,000-20,000 per season.
The July 26-Aug. 31 Pro Kabaddi League competition, involving eight city-based franchises in India, is backed by a prominent TV channel.
''We strongly believe in the potential of kabaddi,'' Star India chief executive Uday Shankar said. ''We're working hard to build it.''
The sport was mired in controversy in 2011 when doping authorities caught 53 players who either tested positive or refused to cooperate with during testers during the Kabaddi world championships, a competition for national teams held in the Punjab.
The head of India's National Anti-Doping Agency said at the time he was surprised by the high number of doping cases, which resulted in bans for athletes from Britain, the United States, Italy, Spain, Australia, Norway, Germany, Argentina, Pakistan and India.
The Indian team won the tournament, and gradually the sport has restored its image.
Now, the two pro leagues are generating plenty of interest.
''Sponsors will adopt a wait-and-watch approach for now,'' sports marketing professional Indranil Das Blah said. ''It's easy to launch successfully since expectations are negligible, but sustaining success is the hard part and that's what sponsors need - sustainability.''
But Blah, the Chief Operating Officer of Kwan Entertainment, doesn't think having more than one league is a problem.
''While ideally, two leagues of the same sport are never good, the two leagues currently seem to have very different positioning,'' Blah said. ''While one sees itself as an Indian league, the other clearly aspires to be a global league.''
While nobody can predict the long-term viability of the leagues, the players are certainly hoping it lasts.
''Who'd have thought a few years ago that we would be playing this game as paid professionals?'' said Royal Kings USA player Balram Singh, who comes from a farming family in the Punjab. ''This kabaddi is totally different from what we used to play in our villages and the players are happy to be playing in front of large crowds - and earning money from the sport.''